Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.

I started with him in 2010 with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, followed that up a few months later with the first proper of the trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, then The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 in 2013, and finally this. Unlike Mao’s Great Famine, or The Tragedy of Liberation, the Cultural Revolution has been covered by far more historians, and sits fresh in the memories of people in their forties. Writers like Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs) and others of the large crop of early-’00s writers covering Tiananmen Square and post-Tiananmen politics if not explicitly writing about this period nonetheless reference it. And if anything this is its weakness.

It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.

One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.

What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.

Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”

I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.

Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976
Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

Quote

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as ab…

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as about 1,800 factories were set up in the hinterland to prepare for war. As one scholar has noted, since about two-thirds of the state’s industrial investment went to the project between 1964 and 1971, it constituted the main economic policy of the Cultural Revolution. […] It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation made by a one-party state in the twentieth century. In terms of economic development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward.

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, Frank Dikötter

Reading … A 7th Anniversary

It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.

Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:

The non-fiction, serious stuff:

Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.

Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.

Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.

Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping GirlExcluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.

The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.

Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.

And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!

The fiction, also serious stuff:

I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.

Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.

Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.

Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.

I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.

The two big ones then, and colossal they are.

One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.

I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.

An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.

There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.

This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.

Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.

William Kinderman — Wagner's Parsifal
William Kinderman — Wagner’s Parsifal
Dayal Patterson — Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult
Dayal Patterson — Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Julia Serano — Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Julia Serano — Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes
H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes
Caroline Walker Bynum — Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
Caroline Walker Bynum — Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
Shi Nai'an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)
Shi Nai’an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)
Ysabeau S. Wilce – Flora's Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light
Ysabeau S. Wilce – Flora’s Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light
K. J. Parker – The folding Knife
K. J. Parker – The folding Knife
Imogen Binnie — Nevada
Imogen Binnie — Nevada
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Nicola Griffith — Hild
Nicola Griffith — Hild

Reading: Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System

I was very excited when Liao Yiwu’s For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System was published last year, then it turned out it was in German, and I had to wait until a couple of weeks ago for the translation to arrive. It was naturally completely worth the wait.

Liao Yiwu became for me the most important biographer and writer on China – Chinese or otherwise – when I read The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up in 2008. His next, God is Red: The Secret Story of how Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, I ordered as soon as I heard about it, despite the theme being something I’m not so interested in. Not quite as brilliant as the former, but there is no one writing on China like him.

And finally this one, an auto-biography. In 1989 Liao was a poet in Sichuan, doing what so many heterosexual male writers and artists have done: drinking, fucking, writing, not especially political nor especially self-reflected. Then June 4th happened. Whatever change that caused for him, politicising him, or at least causing an inarticulate anger which poured out in his poetry, it was the Chinese government that created Liao as the writer he now is.

The former two works, writings of his wanderings post-prison years touch upon those four years; it is this, written in prison, confiscated, rewritten, confiscated again, pieced together from memory in the years after that documents that time in its entirety. It’s brutal.

The first part, Liao before prison in the weeks leading up to his arrest, the Tiananmen Massacre, the poem he wrote in response, also his life is of a person who interests me not so much. Married and careless in his relationship, probably not a little misogynist even, Liao’s writing on himself from the distance separated by his prison years also seems to suggest he finds his former self not as admirable, important, honourable as he presumed himself to be in 1989.

And then prison. When I lived in Guangzhou, there was a prison around the corner, perhaps an investigation or detention centre like he spent two years in. One day a bus pulled out, bars on the windows, full of prisoners. I saw a man sitting towards the back who somehow had obtained a syringe and was openly preparing to shoot up. Whatever this place was like inside in my imagination or from what I’ve read elsewhere, I can now only imagine it as like the places Liao was consigned to.

A menu of famous Chinese dishes and delicacies run for four pages. These are not to be eaten as such, more handed out as beatings, humiliations, torture. Liao as a poet, intellectual, counterrevolutionary often escapes the worst, sometimes receives even heavier punishment, nonetheless is neither lower class nor upper class in the prisoner hierarchy. After four years he is released. Little is said here on the years after, so reading this first then The Corpse Walker would probably be a good combination.

Liao escaped China in 2011 via Vietnam and through his publisher’s help came to live in Berlin. Returning is for the moment not a possibility, which also means these three works are something of a trilogy, unless he has a pile of notes from his wanderings that can be turned into subsequent books. So, read it. There is no other writer I know of who writes on China as Liao Yiwu does – poetry and documentary – the real China, the one that is a dictatorship built on the corpses of tens of millions.

Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs

Reading: Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

Because I’d never seen a photo of him, I imagined Shanghai-based scrap blogger Adam Minter was one of those gruff, 40- or 50-something American expats who manages to keep a blog of his life in China, like not a few others I’ve read over the years. How I came to be reading him … I have no idea, though possibly a connection to Shanghai Street Stories – in a different, older incarnation. Anyway, writing about trash, recycling, junk, waste, rubbish, the burning pits of Mordor, occasionally venturing to Guangdong and the cities I’d been through, of course I’d be reading him.

I’d been waiting for this book for quite some time, one of the many such that have coincidently all been published in the same couple of months. Partly because I have a curiosity for those desolate factories I sped past on the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, or the ones I drove through or spent time in, Qingyuan, Shaoguan, Dongguan, anonymous cities of millions that sprouted from nothing in the space of a pair of decades.

Also it occurred to me as Adam described his own family history of the junkyard that I seem to have one somewhat similar. My father, mechanic until it ruined his back (or at least, that’s the limit of what I know of him), had a factory in Scarborough dealing in waste paper. Not recycling it, just that intermediate step of gathering together all the sources and compressing it into massive bales. The old compactor was like a wire-frame elevator, going only down one floor. Paper went in and down; compressed and wrapped bales came up and out. There was also a freshly-concreted long pit, where the new, automated compactor was to go. And a forklift, which he tried to teach me how to drive at age 4. Almost ended in the pit. Though I did get enough of a hang of it for him to slap a pallet on the forks and me to take him all the way up so he could work on the roller door. Perhaps then a more accurate description of him is former mechanic in the scrap trade.

Minter’s book is a surprisingly light and fast read compared to his blog; it’s a different audience of course. A blog assumes a readership which allows for a shorthand when discussing its topics, giving more space for detailed remarks. A book on the other hand, especially one with a particular readership in mind, one that is unlikely to consistently enjoy reading about the Chinese recycling trade for years on end, keeps things much simpler and moving along. And he does move. Across the United States, across China, back to America, back to China, all the time meeting people from across the Americas, Asia, Middle East, Africa, pretty much anywhere people throw stuff out and other people see a way to make a living from that.

When I was in China, it because swiftly apparent to me the dominant narrative on many issues circulating around consumerism were highly problematic. To be stridently against sweatshops while living a first-world life, for example entirely misses the reality that doesn’t fit neatly into a slogan. Even the next level of narrative, that people in Guangdong, the manufacturing capital of the world, would choose to work in such factories simply because it was better than any other available option is an oversimplification. While it’s not David Graeber’s Debt, Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade does go a long way beyond these simplifications, showing how recycling actually works on a global scale, and for anyone with only a passing familiarity of the topic it’s definitely worth a read. Oh, and Adam is actually a cherub-faced young one.

Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

Like Japan in the ’90s or Afghanistan until Bush Jr. was ousted and the ‘current affairs’ readers stopped caring, China has been for at least the last decade the subject of endless mountains of books, each anticipated, packed, and sold as the last word, the real truth on the Middle Kingdom, most heading quickly for the forgotten bargain bins and pulping. It’s really difficult to find better-publicised works that are of substance, that aren’t simply a rehashing of secondary sources, that are written by people who fundamentally know what they’re talking about and have devoted their lives to their field.

I’ve already finished Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, a work I’d been waiting for, and I could probably dispense with the post-reading praise as it’s not really possible at the moment for him to write something not worth reading. I’d previously read The Age of Openness: China Before Mao – the only disappointment there being lack of pages – and Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, written before this one but chronologically coming directly after. There is one more to complete this trilogy, covering the Cultural Revolution, which will probably arrive in three years.

Both of the first two in this trilogy are masterworks, drawing on recently opened Communist Party archives across China, and pieced together from the often partial and incomplete information available. That this is even possible at all is remarkable, as it is the same party that committed these crimes which remains in power, and it is the descendants of those criminals who sit as rulers.

I find it strange and disturbing when I walk into my favourite bookshop and there’s a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, or for example the Elizabeth Bear collection I’m now reading she whimsically names a synthetic cat Chairman Miaow. It feels to me as if there’s a disjuncture in understanding Mao’s place in the pantheon of 20th Century despots, an understanding that for most Europeans, Anglo-Americans and the general English-speaking part of the world would be self-evident if they walked into said bookshop and it was Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or the cat was named Führer Adolph. Even Stalin suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambivalence or even disinterest in recognising his place in the history of terror, possibly because however close to Europe Russia is, there is a sense it is still Other and so the suffering he inflicted upon the Soviet Union was not necessarily part of the history of Europe and not quite as worthy.

Mao then – and the Chinese Communists – being even further east and perceived as entirely un-European (despite whatever basis his brand of Year Zero communism had in Marx, or that China had been a quasi-colony of Britain for quite some time) seems to be more a subject of patronising carelessness than a person and political party that did to China – and Tibet, and the other peripheral countries that became provinces after Liberation – ten times over what Hitler and the Nazis did in Europe, as well being directly responsible for what happened in Cambodia, Vietnam, much of South-East Asia, and North Korea. Unsurprisingly, it was Euro-American racism and post-colonial political meddling that in no small way abetted his rise to power.

The Tragedy of Liberation fills in the ten-year period from Liberation in 1949 to the end of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the start of the Great Leap Forward, additionally covering the period of the Japanese occupation, and civil war. It is entirely grim, horrific reading. There is no pleasure to be found in the documenting of a country being ransacked and ground into the dirt, its people destroyed by the tens of millions, especially that this decade was just the beginning of a horror that did not begin to abate until the end of the ’70s. Even today the political decision-making and ruling frame remains substantially unchanged, merely a policy that resulted in the country being driven into the dark ages has been replaced by unmitigated capitalism. A history of China post-Mao I suspect will eventually show these most recent three decades to have been as destructive in their own way as the previous three.

Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation

Reading: Paul French – Through the Looking Glass, China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

It took a while to arrive … I’m not even sure now what prompted me to decide I wanted to read this, given it was published in 2009, and I tend to be on a “Want now! Why must I wait until published?” bender lately. But something in the previous months must have made me decide it was more important than the other hundred on my want list, and so it duly arrived last week.

Admittedly, I’m in much more of a fiction mood at the moment, and after finishing Stonemouth, did the rounds of my Iain Banks collection and somehow romped through a mass of Charles Stross also. Predictable of me, yes.

Paul French is one of those China bloggers I’ve been reading since I first wandered to the orient, or at least it seems that way. Being once again incoherent, it took a while for me to realize Through the Looking Glass, China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao was written by him – I mean ‘through the introduction and into Chapter II’ a while.

It’s from Hong Kong University Press, so that means it’s very nicely bound and has a suitably academic-sized typeface, with plenty of margin for both thumbs and (for those so inclined) notes. It also dwells satisfyingly on Guangzhou (yes, I am tired reading books about China that are really about Beijing and/or Shanghai), and covers the periods – Qing Dynasty and Opium Wars through to the end of the Republican Era – I’ve been reading regularly of late.

Thus far in, Paul manages to combine the ‘ripping good yarn’ approach to Far East writing of the likes of Peter Hopkirk with the serious academic detail of Hershatter, Mann and others I’ve been holding up lately as exemplars of scholarship. Which is to say, I’m inhaling it every night until I fall asleep and it bonks me on my face.

Paul French – Through the Looking Glass
Paul French – Through the Looking Glass

Reading: Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence

Unlike Iain Banks, Janet Chen’s Guilty of Indigence — The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953, has more in common with Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory, and shall not be inhaled in a 24 hour period. It’s possible, but I suspect I’d lose any attempt.

I read about Guilty of Indigence on The China Beat, where the author was interviewed, and figured there would be a lot I’d find interesting. For a start it’s Chinese scholarship written by a women, and having spent more than a decade reading predominately this field written by men before discovering Hershatter, Susan Mann and others, it’s obvious to me my renewed interest has been entirely due to women academics.

Secondly, it covers an era that I find has in general been under-represented – certainly in more popular writing on China – being sandwiched as it is between the Qing Dynasty and Mao. Too often this is referred to as the warlord era – even Wikipedia does, (and it irritates me immensely I can’t refind the brilliant essay deconstructing the term in the context of its use in Afghanistan, as it is eminently applicable to China during this era), used to cover the entire Republican era rather than just the twelve years post-WW1 when the country was split under various military fiefdoms (cliques, hegemonies, etc). I don’t have an alternate suggestion for a name for this era, but I find not reducing it to the preconceptions inherent in the word ‘warlord’ helps to think and write about it with a little more subtlety.

As for the China part itself, Janet concentrates mostly on Beijing and Shanghai, which in general in almost everything I’ve read on China is what is meant by ‘China’; a cluster of provinces, Hebei to Zhejiang, and rarely further west than Henan. Yes, I have a fondness for the Southern Barbarians, and all things border-ish, so experienced small but not unexpected disappointment at absence of Canton in the index, though of course if any book tried to be even slightly all-encompassing when it came to Chinese scholarship, it wouldn’t be finished in this lifetime.

Anyway, it’s beautifully bound, the cover and layout are very attractive, and I think I shall take a pause now to begin reading.

Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence
Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence

Reading: James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China

The last of my current batch of reading … more soon to be procured. It’s a little gluttonous, no?

Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes arrived shortly after I finished The Bloody White Baron, and it had been a book I’d heard about every so often, so I was hoping for something … well, earthquakes, the Great Helmsman; as a follow-up to the Baron I was hoping a for a lot.

I am supposed to write these things before I read, and any reviewing that may or may not be done, is done once a year in October; I’m getting sloppy here.

While my attention for all things Sinological is gradually drifting conspicuously south, and my personal feeling is that in another, slightly different outcome of history, China would be something between the idea of the EU and the reality of Confoederatio Helvetica; so it just helps to think of at least the provinces surrounding Han proper like a misshapen ‘C’ as individual countries (they are big enough, after all), and so while my interest is more towards Canton and the inner asian frontiers, I’m never too far away from picking up any book remotely Chinese.

The premise, that the Tangshan earthquake via invocation of the Mandate from Heaven was part of a series of events leading to not only the end of almost thirty years of Maoist destruction, but equally to the de facto abrogation of Maoism, for me was an attractive subject for a book. Much of this because there hasn’t been much written on one of the most devastating earthquakes in history, and how it affected a country, and I do also have a long-standing love affair with geology — my mental image of China and Central Asia is usually one overlaid with geologic and topographic maps.

I think the initial disappointment for me came around a third of the way in, when background events leading up to Mao’s death and the earthquake were still being worked through. It occurred to me that perhaps with all the reading I’ve done on China, I was not exactly the audience. I was wanting to get stuck in from the first page to some chunky primary source research from provincial and county archives along with fault plane solutions and other geological delights, as I have been in some other recent works, and instead found a summarising of the main events of Mao.

Which James does very well, and if I was coming to this stuff for the first time – when I tend to read a lot of works like this to get the broad idea plus some specifics – this would be a more suitable read for me. From my perspective though, I felt that the connection between earthquake and Mao, was not presented in a way where I was convinced of more than a tenuous, or generalist correlation.

Being more critical, there were a couple of things in James’ writing style that irritated me, being occasional slips into vernacular, and the use of various pop culture references as similes. Which makes me sound like a stuffy old toff decrying the loss of Queen’s English, but references to The Godfather and Dad’s Army while clever or apt have a tendency to limit the audience, and to render the both the simile and intent incomprehensible for anyone not familiar with the allusion.

As with the Baron, the concluding section summarised and put into context the aftermath of the events up to the current day (around early 2011), also drawing comparisons with the state of the Communist Party and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Again, mirroring the lengthy lead up to the earthquake, I had this sense I was not really the intended audience, though equally, for a reader coming to this for the first time, he gets through many of the main points in an engagingly readable way.

As an aside, somehow I was expecting a mention of Ai Weiwei, considering the various artists, poets, writers who James mentions around the Tangshan era; for me Wenchuan is quite fixed in my mind with him.

Late in the book, there is a reference to the Republican era which is a common one, describing it as “the warlord era”, and by implication with “the Japanese invasion [and] Maoist insanities”, a very Bad Thing. This is also the Communist narrative and being an era I’ve been reading somewhat on lately-ish (Gourmets in the Land of Famine and The Age of Openness are two I’m thinking of) I would say even given that it was one very broad remark covering the entire Chinese 20th century in a score of words, it is a sloppy and poor choice of words. The mention of R. J. Rummel a couple of pages later, whom I’ve written about previously, also doesn’t help.

So now I feel like I’ve been rather harsh. I was wondering if I felt let down after the Baron, but contra that, if my knowledge of Mongolia and Siberia were commensurate with China, I would have found that work also lacking. I didn’t, because it was a new-ish topic for me — my reading for north of the Tian Shan tends more to the Xiongnu than anything as recent as the Russian Civil War.

Maybe to say that this is one of the better recent books on China you could read which covers both the Maoist era and the 35 years since, without missing many of the main points, and with enough to go on with further, more detailed reading if your attention is taken. I would though like to read the next book from him going to a similar level of research and detail as someone like Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, or Paul A. van Dyke.

James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes
James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes